Album: Alison Krauss and Union Staion

New Favorite, Rounder
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The Independent Culture

The extraordinary success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack has given a shot in the arm to a traditional country scene struggling to make headway against the tide of formulaic big-hat acts still dominating country music.

The album was followed by prestigious concerts in Nashville and New York by the soundtrack artists (including Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, and The Cox Family), the results of which have been released as Down from the Mountain, a companion volume to the previous record. Alison Krauss & Union Station served as de facto backing band on both albums, and no wonder: probably not since Lester Flatt first hooked up with Earl Scruggs has bluegrass music had such potent ambassadors, each player (Dan Tyminski on guitar, Ron Block on guitar and banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, lap steel and Weissenborn, Barry Bales on bass, and Alison herself on fiddle and viola) being an acknowledged master of their instrument, even by the high standards required of Nashville cats.

Given Krauss's unusual policy of alternating band and solo releases, New Favorite marks the first opportunity Union Station have had to capitalise on the O Brother bluegrass boom themselves; they've made an album that pushes the genre's boundaries while aiming for a mainstream crossover audience. A large part of the album's success resides in the band's canny choice of material, with a couple of songs apiece from the lesser-known writers Bob Lucas and Robert Lee Castleman providing several of the high points. Castleman's "Let Me Touch You for a While" and "The Lucky One" are gentle skirmishes from the sex wars, the latter's wistful, sardonic tone punched softly home by irrefutable melodic logic and Krauss's understated vocal. Lucas, by contrast, specialises in the ripples of childhood memories in "Daylight" and "Momma Cried", with maternal grief deftly conveyed by Dan Tyminski's expertly flatted hillbilly-blues vocal.

Tyminski provided the singing voice for George Clooney's character in O Brother, and brings the same powerfully evocative tones to several tracks here, most notably "The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn", a traditional tale in which the eponymous youth finds himself snubbed in love for his laziness. Moving from a bottleneck blues intro into a more complex arrangement, it's a tour de force in which all concerned are at the top of their game.

Jerry Douglas, especially, is exceptional throughout, his dobro solos a gentle knot of notes untangling fluidly on "Let Me Touch You for a While", while his own "Choctaw Hayride" has the antic spring of a well-sprung rumble-seat racing down a pockmarked road. Torchier tracks such as the elegantly melancholic "I'm Gone" employ Krauss's multi-tracked violas as string-pad tints, rather than bluegrass fiddles – an example of the subtle touches and skilful flourishes that make New Favorite a landmark country recording.

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